What has become of conservatism?

Monday, November 28th, 2016

What has become of conservatism?, Nick Cohen asks — in the not-so-conservative Guardian:

Conservatives once boasted that they were the grown-ups, even if they did say so themselves. They conserved the best of the past and believed in the sensible management of the world as it is, rather than in dangerous fantasies about the world as it might be. Hold out as their opponents might, eventually they would understand that conservatism was just common sense.

“Once again, the facts of life have turned out to be Tory,” declared Margaret Thatcher in 1976, as she prepared for one of the long periods of Conservative rule that have dominated British history since the 1880s. Dozens of respectable figures have agreed and played with variations on the theme of: “If you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart. If you are still a socialist at 40, you have no head.” Conservatives have condescended to allow that sensible people might have wild ideas about subjects they know nothing about. But as Robert Conquest, the great historian of the crimes of communism, said in the first of his three laws of politics: “Everyone is a conservative about what he knows best.”

English conservatives, who are by no means confined to supporters of the Conservative party, have the best reason to be smug. Conservatism supplied the dominant version of the English national story. It helped ensure that the Conservative party was, in a phrase that said it all, “the natural party of government”.

The English, a category they could expand to cover the Scots and the Welsh, but never the Irish, have not had a revolution since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution was glorious because it did not lead to civil war. (Ireland is always forgotten, as I said.) The country or, rather its ruling class, peacefully removed James II, a Catholic Stuart with pretensions to absolute rule, and assured the triumph of parliamentary government by replacing him with the Protestant William III.

In his speech to the (then all-male and all-wealthy) electors of Bristol in 1774, Edmund Burke explained the ideals of parliamentary government. An MP was their representative, not their delegate. He owed the voters only “his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

Burke’s denunciation of the French Revolution 16 years later, heralded a further strand to the story of England as a safe, sensible nation. When Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, his contemporaries thought him mad to predict that an apparently benign revolution would end in “despotism”. By the time Robespierre began the reign of terror of 1793, he looked like a prophet.

Ever since then, Anglo-Saxon conservatives have been able to believe, with a smidgen of justice, that continentals had the guillotines of the 1790s and the death camps and gulags of the 1930s and 1940s because of their utopian willingness to tear up society by the roots. The pragmatic, empirical and, above all, conservative British were spared because we favoured a respect for tradition and gradual change.


  1. Bomag says:

    I like the adage that “today’s conservatives conserve nothing; today’s liberals liberate nothing.”

    The article comes off as trolling. Today’s governance on all sides is pretty securely liberal, with all public officials falling over themselves to offer ever more public programs to ever more people. Now that the votes are not falling for the most possible central control of our lives, Nick Cohen et al are madly screaming genocide and racism.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    Stop calling liberal what is just Marxist culture and tactics.

  3. Rightside says:

    Conservatives, to the shock and dismay of lefties, spend just as much on socialist programmes as the Socialists do. The only difference is that the left-sided loons shout for more central government control and spending than the right does, even though the right soon enough capitulates and does just what the left wants.

    Trouble is, whatever is done can never enough. No matter how much is spent on, say, the NHS the loons want even more spent. And if it was, they would still scream the Tories are killing it.

    The right may be weak but the left has so many deranged people it is hard to keep up.

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